What is Philosophy A level about?
Philosophy is a subject that resists any simple definition. Just as, in motor mechanics, an electrical problem is sometimes defined (not entirely seriously) as one that cannot be fixed with a hammer, it can seem easier to characterise Philosophy negatively, by reference to what it isn't. Philosophy, one might say, generally concerns itself with questions that other subjects leave unanswered. For example, whereas a physicist can tell you about the nature of the constituent parts of a table – the molecules and atoms and so on of which the table is made – philosophers may ask what it takes for any collection of particles to constitute a larger object. (Some philosophers, finding all proposed answers to this question deficient in some respect, have even doubted that tables (and other ordinary composite objects) really exist.)
Again, Politics concerns itself (in part) with just, or fair, distributions of goods in society; philosophers consider questions such as what it means to say that a distribution is fair, or just, and whether and why distributions ought to be fair or just in the first place – what's so good about fairness? One of the many achievements of biological science has been to create a useful and scientifically-informed taxonomy of biological species, detailing the relations between different types of plants and animals. It falls to philosophers to worry about the status of such taxonomy – asking, for example, whether there are any 'real' divisions between different biological kinds in nature, or whether the distinctions are merely constructions of our own minds.
Many philosophical questions, then, intersect with the sciences; but a distinctive feature of the subject is that, while philosophers often use the data of the sciences (and most have an enormous respect for science), they use no experimental tools other than their brains – the subject can be practised entirely from the armchair – and the questions that they consider are distinctive – often seeking a deeper understanding of the fundamental assumptions that, in our ordinary lives, we tend not to question.
Equally, though, plenty of philosophical topics have no particular connection with science at all. In Aesthetics, for example, philosophers consider the basis and the nature of the value of artistic works. Moral Philosophy examines whether there are any moral truths, and the methods and nature of moral decision-making. In Epistemology, you may be asked how (if at all) you can tell that the world around you is the way it seems, and that you are not just a brain being stimulated to have the experiences that you are having. In studying Personal Identity, you may be asked what would happen to you if your brain were transplanted into another body, or whether you could survive being teletransported to another planet by radio waves.
Indeed, it is much easier to get a feeling for what Philosophy is by considering particular issues that have traditionally been of interest to philosophers than by trying to define the subject in the abstract. For example:
- Is there a God?
- How ought we to live?
- What really exists?
- Why does anything exist?
- How can we be sure that the world really is the way we think it is? How do we know that we are not victims of a massive illusion or Matrix-style deception as to the nature of the world we live in?
- How do we even manage to think anything? How is it that a lump of organic matter – your brain – can have thoughts about its surroundings?
- What does it mean to say that we ought not to do something? Are any such claims about what we ought to do strictly and objectively true, and if so, what could make them true?
- What (exactly) are you anyway, and does life have any meaning or purpose?
Some, or all, of these are probably questions about which you have already wondered at some point in your life: for whilst most students do not study Philosophy formally before the Sixth Form or University, practically all of us (in an informal way) have, whether we realised it or not, been doing Philosophy almost since we first learned to speak.
Whom does it suit?
No previous experience of the subject is required. Nor does Philosophy particularly suit students with a preference for the arts as opposed to the sciences, or vice versa. Many good philosophers are also strong in mathematics and/or science; but equally many lean towards artistic or literary subjects, or the social sciences; many, too, are linguists. Philosophy can in fact be combined successfully with almost any other subject or subjects. The skills of analysis, careful, logical, methodical thought, and clear presentation are useful in all areas of study. At university, Philosophy is sometimes studied on its own; but it is much more frequently combined with other subjects, including Maths, Physics, Theology, Politics, Economics, Psychology, Modern Languages, and Classics.
Obviously, the first requirement is that you should be interested in finding out more about at least some the sorts of questions – such as those described in the preceding section – with which philosophers concern themselves.
A distinctive feature of Philosophy is that it is significantly less fact-based than many other subjects. Although certain views and positions have from time to time gained favour among philosophers, and other formerly popular views have become discredited, it is fair to say that there are no (or very few) established answers to the sorts of questions that you will be invited to consider when you study Philosophy.
Accordingly, there are relatively few marks for getting the 'right' answer in this subject. That is not to say that there are no facts to be learned; on the contrary, you will be expected to learn plenty of factual material: you will have to know and understand the details of many of the arguments that have in fact been advanced by philosophers (both ancient and modern) in the areas that you study. In doing so you will need to learn, and use, many new concepts and a good deal of new terminology (the level of jargon in Philosophy is initially quite daunting in itself).
But that is merely the beginning, for the real challenge is to deploy this factual and conceptual knowledge so as to be able to evaluate the arguments and positions that others have advanced, develop arguments of your own, to be able to modify positions so as to respond to relevant objections, and so on. Doing this effectively requires that you first gain a very clear understanding of the concepts and terminology, the arguments that have historically been deployed in the area that you are studying, and their significance. It also requires you to sharpen your analytical sense so that you can identify flaws in arguments presented by others and anticipate possible objections to your own arguments. Above all, it requires that you be committed to developing your writing skills so as to be able to express yourself with clarity and great precision. Even the best writers are surprised, when they start studying Philosophy, by just how much they are required to improve the detail and clarity of their writing.
Much of the material that you are required to read and understand is complex, and the differences between views are often subtle and can be hard to express. For a subject that you can do while sitting down and staring out of the window, it is surprisingly hard work; but it is also immensely rewarding.
As the examples above suggest, Philosophy meddles in quite a range of quite different areas. Indeed, there is no real limit to the scope of the subject, save only that it requires one to think clearly and logically about the topic under investigation. Above all, Philosophy is concerned with arguments rather than facts, and in studying Philosophy you will learn to sharpen your skills in presenting your own arguments and (especially) in criticising those of others. A high degree of precision – and even pedantry – in your thinking is required. If you were inclined to question the definition of an electrical problem as one that cannot be fixed with a hammer by observing that there must in fact be some electrical faults that can be remedied with a hammer – for example, by using it to rejoin two electrical contacts that have become separated – then you are thinking in the right way already.
At D’Overbroeck’s we study the AQA Philosophy course.
There are four units. The AS Units (Unit 1 and Unit 2) are studied in the first year (Year 12/Lower Sixth) and lead to an AS qualification; the A2 units (Unit 3 and Unit 4) are studied in the second year (Year 13/Upper Sixth) and, together with the AS units, lead to the full A–level qualification.
Within each of Units 1, 2 and 3, two 'topics' (out of a choice of five) are studied. For Unit 4, there is a single topic requiring detailed study of a philosophical text. The topics available for each unit are as follows. The only compulsory topic is Reason and Experience in Unit 1.
- Reason and Experience (compulsory topic)
- Why should I be governed?
- Why should I be moral?
- The idea of God
- Free will and determinism
- Knowledge of the external world
- The value of art
- God and the world
- Philosophy of mind
- Political philosophy
- Epistemology and metaphysics
- Moral philosophy
- Philosophy of religion
- Plato, Republic (extracts)
- Hume's Enquiry (extracts)
- Mill, On Liberty
- Descartes, Meditations
- Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (extracts)
There is no coursework or controlled assessment, and grades are awarded on the basis of written examinations only, with Units 1 and 2 normally being taken in May of the Lower Sixth year (Year 12) and Units 3 and 4 in June of the Upper Sixth (Year 13), Exam questions are typically of two types, and require either (i) a relatively brief (but utterly clear and precise) factual, non–evaluative, explanation and illustration of some concept, distinction, argument, or issue, or (ii) a full evaluative essay presenting a longer critical analysis or assessment of a given philosophical view or argument from among those that you have studied.
Who will teach me?
David Mackie took a double First in Greats (Classics) at Corpus Christi College, Oxford before switching to Philosophy and taking a B. Phil. and D. Phil. in Philosophy, also at Oxford. He has held Lectureships in Philosophy at Exeter College, Corpus Christi College, and Christ Church (all in Oxford) and was Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Oriel College, Oxford, from 1998 to 2003. His main research interests in Philosophy are in the areas of personal identity, free will and determinism, and the philosophy of action.
In 2003 he left academia to qualify as a lawyer, and worked as a solicitor specialising in corporate taxation from 2005 to 2009 before returning to teaching at d'Overbroeck's in 2010, where he also teaches Latin and Classical Civilization and is a co–ordinator of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award programme.
What might the subject lead to?
Some students, of course, go on to study Philosophy at university, and the topics and arguments that they study at AS and A2 provide an excellent introduction to the subject for this purpose: the areas covered at A-level are among those that are typically studied (though of course in greater depth) in undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Whilst many students study Philosophy at university without any previous experience of the subject, it is an advantage to have had the head start that the A–level provides.
Even for students not intending to pursue Philosophy beyond school, the Philosophy A–level is a very useful and highly–respected qualification, particularly because the skills – especially those of oral and written expression – that you will develop are highly transferable and are valued both by university admissions tutors in other academic disciplines and (beyond university) by employers in many areas. Good philosophers are widely respected as highly able critical thinkers, whose abilities to bring clarity of expression and precision in analysis, and to develop (and attack) arguments make them highly attractive to potential employers in many different areas of life. Accordingly, trained philosophers are to be found in a whole host of professions, including (but by no means limited to) the Law, the Civil Service, politics, IT companies, financial institutions, charities and media employers (as well as academic institutions). The ability to develop an argument, and to think and express yourself clearly, are invaluable tools whatever direction you eventually decide to take.
Further advice and guidance
Excellent introductions to Philosophy that you might want to look at, in order to help you to decide whether Philosophy might be for you, include the following:
- Simon Blackburn, Think: A compelling introduction to Philosophy (ISBN 978–0192854254)
- Thomas Nagel, What Does it all Mean? (ISBN 978–0195174373)
- Nigel Warburton, Philosophy: The Basics (ISBN 978–0415327732)
The AQA course specification contains useful summaries of the main issues that are covered in the various units. The specification can be found online at
I am always happy to answer any further questions that you may have, whether at an open day or in response to an informal approach.